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The Courage to Speak Up: The Anti-Bystander Position

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What does it take to act with courage? What does it take to be the anti-bystander -- the one who speaks up rather than stay silent? The officials at Penn State University have modeled the opposite of courage. The cowardly Nittany Lions top executives deemed it too risky to speak the truth and "out" one of their own. Faced with information about former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged involvement in sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy, former university president Graham B. Spanier and other top university officials convinced themselves that it was reasonable, or as one email suggested, "humane," to avoid reporting Sandusky to the authorities. Instead they chose to say nothing and do nothing, and Sandusky allegedly sexually molested boys for many more years.

How easy it is to convince ourselves and others to avoid dealing with the stresses and potential fall-outs that come from exposing atrocious behavior. Recently a friend and colleague took the opposite tactic and spoke up after she and two other women had an encounter at the Union League of Philadelphia, a private club that first admitted women in 1986. The three, according to Ilene Wasserman, founder of ICW Consulting Group, were seated at a table in an empty dining room, only to be asked to move 15 minutes later as the table they were "mistakenly" seated at belonged to a club whose president was adamant about "not permitting women to sit there." Recognizing that organizations committed to change must recognize the "hidden minefields that are left over from previous periods of time," Wasserman got the story out on WHYY, the Philadelphia-based public radio station.

When I first read the print version of the interview, all I could think was, "how courageous." I felt so proud of my friend for having the guts to speak up and expose this sanctioned practice of gender discrimination. I wondered if I'd have that same bravery. Hoping I'd muster it up from within, I began to reflect on the notion of courage -- what it takes to call it up and act on it. How did Ilene call it up? I suspect that years of leading diversity trainings in for-profit and not-for-profit organization equipped Ilene with conviction that she had no choice but to report the incident and expose the institution's allowance for gender exclusion. Silence was not an option. It would have been a cop-out and she wasn't willing to accept cop-out as an option.

Copping out is when we avoid doing something because we're scared of the consequences -- retaliation, losing position, or in some other way of becoming as a result of our speaking up. Truth is, we're often harmed by our decisions to comply and remain quiet. Stress and anxiety grow from this stance, as well. Interestingly, in the case of sexual abuse, those who speak up, are believed and see actions taken on their behalf tend to suffer to a lesser extent than those who don't speak up, aren't believed or don't have appropriate actions taken as a result of what's been revealed.

In the June 10 NY Times Magazine article about his and other's experiences at Horace Mann prep school outside of Manhattan, Amos Kamil speaks about how in "the early years of life, young children and teens struggle with what they are willing to stand up for. Children need strong and consistent role models." Kamil says, "in many cases we got them. But in too many other cases we got models of how to abuse authority, how to manipulate trust, how to keep silent, how to fix your eyes forward." He asks, "How does an institutional culture arise to condone, or at least ignore, something that, individually, every member knows is wrong?"

Kamil's article, Ilene Wasserman's actions and the allegations set forth in the Jerry Sandusky trial call upon us to pause and consider what needs to change. What are we willing to do to protect those who are innocent and vulnerable? What are we willing to do to expose practices that disregard the dignity of others? Rather than focus on all the bad that may come from speaking up and saying what's so, we need to focus on the good that may result.

Change happens slowly. It happens when leaders are inspired to do the right thing and protect the oppressed, not those who are oppressing. It happens when organizations examine their policies, practices and procedures including, as Amos Kamil points out, "whistle-blower protections to ensure that any person can freely report alleged violations." And it happens when we actively support each other to engage in more acts of courage.

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